There will never be another chance for Sinan Ozbay to come back to my Brown common room at 3 AM, to sit on the ugly red couch against the left wall, and to chat with my roommates about the history of The Nassau Weekly.
From time to time, I wake up in the middle of the night, having dreamt of the places I no longer live in and cannot go back to. I think back to the strange angles of my Holder Hall dorm, see apparitions of my high-ceiling common room in Buyers, and, though infrequently, recall my Brown quad’s view of the most charismatic trees in Princeton.
These are lost places. I don’t mean to say that I couldn’t stroll up to North campus, knock, and, in a fit of bizarre nostalgia, ask whichever underclassmen currently lives in my freshman dorm to grant me one last peek at the out-of-place but incredibly tasteful finish on the bedroom doors. Nor do I mean that I couldn’t, perhaps, insist on on-campus housing for reunions, and request a particular room I inhabited for a year. Absent some inexplicable longing for just a few more nights of dust and low ceilings, I’m not inclined to. No, these spaces as I lived in them cannot be returned to. They are lost in time: There will never be another chance to come back to my Brown common room at 3 AM, to sit on the ugly red couch against the left wall, and to chat with my roommates about the history of ballet essay I had due, or the strange people I was seeing. I can’t ever go back to the hardwood floors in Rocky where I napped after fall lawn parties in 2015 (and cried a bit, because Nate Ruess has an otherworldly falsetto). I can’t return to any of those places. Those places are gone, even if the rooms remain. I can only search for them in my sleep and in my memory.
Am I making a trite point about memory and how the exact configuration of the way things were is utterly irrecoverable? An anti-Gatsby you-can’t-repeat-the-past platitudinous truism barely worth mentioning? Perhaps. And yet, there is something different about losing the spaces that matter in particular. These spaces we live in are present over long stretches of time. They are present over the course of months, semesters, and even an entire year. Hefty, intractable blocks of time that threaten to become nothing more than broad swathes of feeling, with days collapsing into each other within your memory as your life moves on. After a semester, you’re often left with nothing more than a feeling or an impression of a feeling, paired lightly with four or five vignettes from the semester, as well as half-forgotten knowledge of your academic schedules. You own that room for a year. You are centered around it. You can go back to it at any point at any time during that year. It is your point of return, your rock, your starting and ending point for the day. It is not a single dinner you reminisce about or a chance encounter in the Holder cloisters you recall. It is an institution that lives, extended over months, and over a year. It is an institution that collapses too. These rooms are not just memories, but a basis for the structure of our memories.
When I first arrived on campus freshman year, I knew this place to some extent. I grew up in Princeton, and through walks with friends, talks attended, and events geared at high school kids, names like McCosh, Friend, and Frist began to develop in my mind as real spaces. The dark, formerly solid interiors changed—what were once nothing more than Gothic visages or great walls of glass began to grow inward as I grew to know their contents, more complex and more real than they had been. As college continued, I discovered more spaces that had been hidden: Three-room doubles in Cuyler fit for a king, or a pair of princes. Cozy carpet-laden quads in Edwards that made Holder hardwood look harsh. Dorms in Mathey with such high ceilings they’d show up the ambiance of Petersburg drawing rooms, given the right interior decorator. Spaces that opened up, became houses of laughter, the site of tears, and problem set factories. Places that, come late May, were gutted, emptied, and all the residents evicted, to be rearranged by the next set of inhabitants.
And, on the other end of this way of thinking about spaces, there are those that I can still only imagine. The spaces I have not yet seen and may never see. I feel this often. When I walk through 1879 arch, I wonder where the lovely doors at the top of the stone stairs lead. What goes on there? Secret philosophical conspiracies? Ideological sacrifice of this or that? Likewise, the right-hand entrance to East Pyne is, I’m told, the home of the classics department. But I wonder what really goes on there. Whose center of the universe resides on that side of the courtyard? In the same vein, when I’m told a pregame is in this building or that one, I often feel as though I’m running through a labyrinth of dozens of rooms. Those rooms are the site of thousands of moments of drama, love, heartbreak, joy, boredom, and the minutiae of life. And they may never be revealed to me.
As I dream about those spaces not yet seen, my mind often slips into the spaces lost in time. Occasionally, if the fall air floats in through the window just so, if the dim light hits the walls exactly right, I can almost sense the presence of others who lived in what is my space years ago. I find they have briefly returned. In those moments, past and present start to coincide, until they are inevitably pulled apart by even the most minute differences. And sometimes, there are brief moments where it appears that I myself may just be moving closer to those spaces that I have lost, moments in which I inhabit them again, and, perhaps, the current residents can sense me in turn.